‘We Raise Our Sisters on Our Shields:’ The Modern Valkyrie

By Kristin Jacques, author of Ragnarök Unwound, forthcoming from Sky Forest Press

The Valkyrie has made a comeback in a big way. While this Norse mythological figure has cropped up from time to time in the modern era, the influx and influence of mythology in recent media has lifted the Valkyrie in a new direction. There is now an abundance of depictions in comic books, novels, television shows and blockbuster films, where the Valkyrie has become synonymous with the B.A.M. (Bad Ass Motha), the tough-as-nails female heroine. This archetypal heroine is a cornerstone in several genres, such as Urban Fantasy.

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Valkyrie, Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1864

This representation is not a far cry from their Norse origins, though newer incarnations present a somewhat sanitized version of the original myth, focusing on the noble characteristics of these female extensions of the All Father. The hint of their dark origins is in the etymology of their name.

valkyries-1900778_1920To break down the old Norse Valkyrjur, Valr referred to the slain of the battlefield and kjósa, meant ‘to choose.’ Valkyrie translated to ‘Choosers of the Slain,’ a title that not only encompassed their choice of which warriors were granted Valhalla status, but who would die in battle. Valkyries didn’t shy away from invoking some heavy-duty black magics to ensure their choices came to fruition. In Njal’s Saga, there is an instance of twelve Valkyrie gathered around a loom, weaving fate like the Norns, though their materials are far grimmer. Here, the Valkyrie use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and arrows for beaters, while they gleefully chant their hit list. The Saga of the Volsungs compares the sight of a Valkyrie to ‘staring into an open flame.’ To the Anglo-Saxons, they were spirits of carnage.

At some point the representation shifted from ‘warrior’ to ‘shield maiden,’ and there, a fine distinction began to surface. Valkyrie served as projections, parts of a greater whole. The Valkyrie were an extension of Odin, but as the focus shifted to their nobler deeds, so too did their autonomy expand. Odin might dictate their choice of who died in battle, but the Valkyrie, such as Brunhild or Sigrun, chose their lovers. They chose mortals to favor and protect. They became susceptible to the vices and failings of mortals, just like other Norse deities. They became more human.

tessa thompson

It was this association with fairness, brightness, gold, and bloodshed that has resurfaced in depictions of the modern Valkyrie. There has also been a bit of an amputation from the All Father. A single Valkyrie is a B.A.M., but she comes with a sisterhood. Recent Valkyrie representations include everything from Tessa Thompson’s very memorable kick-butt turn as Marvel’s Valkyrie in the third Thor outing to Rachel Skarsten’s Tamsin in the fantasy femme fatale brawl that is Lost Girl. [pictured: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.]

In Marvel’s hot take, the Valkyrie were an elite band of female warriors who served in Odin’s army, with Thompson’s character adrift and rudderless without her sisters. (Slight spoiler: she comes back swinging.) Here at least Odin is present, but the Valkyrie, particularly Thompson, have complete autonomy over themselves.

Lost Girl - Season 5
LOST GIRL — “Like Hell Pt. 1” Episode 501 — Pictured: Rachel Skarsten as Tamsin — (Photo by: Steve Wilkie/Prodigy Pictures)

The Valkyrie in the Canadian fantasy drama Lost Girl give a fair nod to their dark origins. Here, the Valkyrie don’t answer to Odin at all, but to Freyja. They still have the soul-taker gig, but with a twist.  The Valkyrie consider one another sisters, and they fight like sisters, though the hair is off-limits.

For my own depiction of Valkyrie in Ragnarök Unwound, I draw on the more bombastic qualities present in the myths and modern incarnations in the creation of Hildr—fierce, loyal, and quite literal. Isolated from her sisters, Hildr builds a new sisterhood with the other female characters of the novel to fight the good fight.

A common factor in these modern depictions is while the Valkyrie are singularly B.A.M., the Sisterhood is a force of nature. They draw strength from one another and in turn give their strength to one another.

This mentality of sisterhood carries over into women’s culture. We all want to be Wonder Woman. We want to be the B.A.M., but we are strongest when we lift each other. We raise our sisters on our shields. No matter the depiction, the world they inhabit, or who their boss is, Valkyrie are the Sisterhood of the Fierce.


Sources:
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy
Norse-mythology.org
Lost Girl
Thor: Ragnarok

Featured image: Arthur Rackham, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie,” 1910

The Pirate Queen of the South China Seas

by K.P. Kulski

A couple weeks ago, E.J. and taught a class on Writing Realistic Women in Historical Settings for In Your Write Mind, a writer’s conference annually hosted by Seton Hill University. During the lecture, I touched on the idea that women of lower classes could find opportunities for power through communities of crime such as piracy and robbery

This got me thinking about how living and operating in communities that were outside and/or in direct conflict with the larger social norm, women could more easily step into roles that would have been improbable within their societies. Please note that I will be discussing these groups and concepts in a historical context, but certainly many of the forthcoming statements may or may not apply to modern day.

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Piracy in the South China Sea ( Image © adventuresinhistoryland.com)

While these communities of crime were brutal and unforgiving, structural norms for the sake of order or blind adherence to traditional roles did not hold the level of importance it did in larger society. Organized crime was a state of flux with the strongest and most shrewd rising to power and then ultimately falling in favor someone else. Social power structures are therefore not stationary, if anything, quite the opposite. By nature, crime violates social norms through violation of law. Further, these communities tended to be focused on factors such as cunning and clear success for the basis of authority with little regard for things such as gender or class.

The history of piracy and general seafaring has many examples of women who found escape from social restraints on their gender and chose to live a life on the high seas. It is not surprising, since in many ways, a ship alone upon the ocean can be its own extremely isolated and unique society with varied power structures. Through cunning, effective leadership and delivery of victory (therefore money), individuals from many backgrounds could find themselves in positions of power. Neither class nor gender was necessarily an obstacle.

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(Image © allthatsinteresting.com)

It should be no further surprise that one of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman. At her height of power, she commanded a fleet that numbered 70,000 pirates and 1,200 vessels.[1] A “pirate confederation whose members outnumbered by two times the total forces involved in the Spanish Armada.”[2] This woman, born as Shi Yang would later be infamously known as Cheng I Sao “the wife of Cheng I” or Ching Shih “widow of Zheng.” She was not high-born, in fact she was a commoner who originally worked as a prostitute in the Canton region before her meteoric rise to pirate power. Her strength and immense supremacy over not only a single ship but several fleets, justly conjures the image of a pirate queen. If not anything else, Ching Shih was exactly that, a position achieved through her unparalleled capabilities of strategy and leadership.

Her rise to power began first as an exceedingly effective union between her and the pirate Cheng I through marriage. Historians are not completely sure of the basis of the marriage, if it was motivated by love, lust, business alliance or some combination of all three. But Ching Shih put her political and strategic skills to work alongside Cheng I whose pirate status (in fact he was from a family of pirates) legitimized her own status within the pirate world. While together, they successfully unified and strengthened the pirates of the South China coast by 1804. Historian Dian Murray points out that it appears Ching Shih elevated and launched the careers of her spouses, a role reversal from larger society, that it was Ching Shih who provided the impetus and skills for success.

When Cheng I died suddenly in 1807, Ching Shih maneuvered herself as sole leader of the massive fleets they had built together. She did this through identifying how to further legitimatize her claim (something already strong), created relationships with tributary pirate gang leaders and even used religious beliefs to her advantage.

But she was much more than a cunning contender to power, Ching Shih was a highly effective leader. Taking power is one thing, but consistently delivering successful operations was vital to maintaining it. She did just that, even recognizing that robbing ships alone could not sustain operations. Ching Shih took control of vital salt shipments and organized extensive networks that sold vouchers to local fishermen and other seafarers that exempted them from attack. She did all this through strict control with draconian punishments that included immediate decapitation for anyone who tried to usurp or disobey commands.[3] She maintained an interest in the proper treatment of women that extended to female captives establishing a punishment that included death for pirates who raped women, captive or not.[4]

Ching Shih next married the adopted son of her deceased husband. This union was as much a partnership of ambition with Ching Shih in the driver’s seat of the fleet. She created the conditions for her new husband Chang Pao to gain power within the fleet as the commander of a subset of the organization, known as the Red Flag Squadron.

What’s most interesting to me is that Ching Shih did not seem to identify herself solely as a pirate, instead she held a supreme confidence in her abilities and knew when to roll the dice and when to bow out of the game. She was flexible and took to new roles fluidly and with equal skill. Eventually she left the pirating world, obtained a position of governmental authority for her husband and set herself and her family up nicely in Canton.

Ching Shih never lived within the constraints of society and never let anyone define her. It was a remarkable outlook. When she died at the age of 69, she left behind a well-lived life where she not only refused to take “no” for an answer, but never seemed to recognize that anyone had the right to refuse her in the first place.

Featured image credit: Still from the 2003 movie, Singing Behind Screens

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Endnotes

[1] Dian Murray. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” Historical Reflections 8, no. 3. (1981): 3.

[2] Murray, “Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” 3.

[3] Murray, 6.

[4] Murray, 6.

The Shapeshifting Powers of Superheroes

By Carrie Gessner

One of my favorite college professors once said something in a class on renaissance drama that changed how I looked at history and storytelling. While discussing the enduring power of certain stories, she said that people have been telling stories about the same things for centuries. What changes is the language used. A character from one of these plays written in the early 17th century could be dealing with alcoholism or depression, and the audience understood those problems, but we as a culture didn’t develop those words until much later.

In that spirit, while E.J., K.P., and Meagan have all discussed literal shapeshifting, I’m going to be taking a more metaphorical approach, specifically looking at the type of shapeshifting most seen in modern superhero stories. DC Comics: Bombshells is a comic series that takes place in an alternate universe where the DC heroines get involved in World War II. The various intertwining stories follow Wonder Woman, Aquawoman, Vixen, Zatanna, and many more, but I’m going to focus on Batwoman, Stargirl, and Supergirl.

JSA_81The first volume opens in Gotham City in 1940 at a women’s professional baseball game, where the players are forced to wear masks to hide their identities to protect themselves from harassment. This isn’t an origin story. In this world, the Batwoman, AKA Kate Kane, has been active on the baseball field as well as in the streets fighting crime, even merging the two when a group of criminals attacks the crowd gathered at the stadium. When Amanda Waller offers her the chance to help end the war, Kate doesn’t hesitate because, as she says, “I want my life to have greater meaning”1 a meaning she can’t get on the home front. Whether that’s a character flaw or strength is left up to the reader.

No matter the reason, she heads off to Berlin on a spy mission, where she continues to be Kate Kane in public and the Batwoman in private. In every superhero story, the protagonist is, essentially, two people—their heroic identity and their secret one. Kate is no different. She feels unable to contribute to the extent she wants as Kate Kane, so she becomes the Batwoman.

While she represents America in the war, Stargirl and Supergirl hail from the Soviet Union. In this universe, Kara Starikov (elsewhere known as Kara Zor-El) landed in Russia when she was sent to Earth. Consequently, she was found and adopted into a Russian family, including an adoptive sister, Kortni Duginovna. In 1940, they join the Night Witches, Russia’s legendary squadron of female fighter pilots. After an accident with Kortni’s plane forces Kara to reveal her alien powers, they pressed into service as Stargirl and Supergirl, “pinnacles of Soviet civilization” and “defenders of the motherland.”2 Their identities are turned into propaganda.

The question with all three of these characters, and with superheroes in general, is 1313804-supergirlwhich identity is the true one? How does donning a costume and wearing a mask alter the original identity? In “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities,” Tom Morris discusses this dual nature, particularly in regards to Superman and Batman, and comes to the conclusion that “a duality has replaced a singularity, but with a new, fused unity.”3 In essence, a superhero character isn’t their secret identity at certain times and their heroic identity other times. They’re both simultaneously.

In her essay “What Is a Female Superhero?” Jennifer K. Stuller argues that “stories about superheroes can teach us about our socially appropriate roles (or, if we’re savvy, how to subvert them), how we fit into our communities, and about our human potential, both terrible and great.”4 As we do with all fiction, we learn about ourselves and other people through superhero stories. So while we read about a superhero’s two identities becoming one, we realize that we, too, can transform.

Circling back to Bombshells, at the end of volume two, Stargirl’s and Supergirl’s story intersects with the Batwoman’s in London, where they face the threat of the Tenebrae, Batwoman_(Kate_Kane)soldiers brought back from the dead. All the heroines we’ve been introduced to so far are here, so there’s a lot going on in this climactic scene. Among the chaos, though, the Batwoman says to Stargirl, “Symbols and stories got power, sugar. Fairy tales and propaganda. It’s all in the story you tell. It’s all in the story you sell. . . . Write your own ending.”5 This brief, powerful moment confirms that we don’t have to wait around for change to find us. We have the power to change our story, and through that, we transform ourselves.

The Batwoman’s words make an impact on Stargirl, too. The memory of them nudges her into an otherwise unexpected choice that forever changes her life and her sister’s. “I am a new story,” she says. “I am a story for mothers to tell their little girls. We must decide for ourselves what we would create, what we would change, and what we would leave behind. What you leave will be the thing that most defines you. What you save will be the thing that saves you.”6

These are tumultuous times, and the challenges we face personally and as a society can seem overwhelming. But since we’ve told stories, we’ve taken strength from them. If we start small, start close to home, save the things we love so they can save us in return, maybe eventually, the shape of our society will shift into something kinder and lovelier for everyone.

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Footnotes

  1. Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 1: Enlisted. DC Comics, 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Morris, Tom. “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities.” Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris, Open Court, 2001, 250-266.
  4. Stuller, Jennifer K. “What Is a Female Superhero?” What Is a Superhero?, edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2013, 19-23.
  5. Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 2: Allies. DC Comics, 2016.
  6. Ibid.

Featured: Rejected Princesses

As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.26.04 PMThe project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.

I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.

The Write Awakening

by Sara Tantlinger

From a young age, writing followed Kate Chopin in many ways. She read often and kept

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Kate Chopin

journal entries and some private poetry, but her fiction didn’t really surface until after a series of tragedies impacted her future. Throughout Chopin’s life, she lost her father, husband, mother and other relatives all before she even turned 34. Left with six children, her husband’s debt, and a great struggle with depression, her obstetrician and a family friend both advised her to use writing as a way to heal and focus, and as a method to provide income. [1]

Writing as a form of escapism is a familiar concept to anyone who practices the craft. Before misfortune stole Chopin’s loved ones away, she was someone we sometimes think of (perhaps without meaning to) as being a person “immune” to depression. Her background was that of belonging to a wealthy, established family. She was a Southern beauty, well liked and considered a great conversationalist. But even then, Chopin was in search for a personal freedom that remained elusive. Like many of us who deal with inner struggles, Chopin hid her vulnerability from others, but she used writing to convey and perhaps to make sense of the complexities within her thoughts. As a teenager making her social debut she wrote in her journal, “I dance with people I despise [. . .] I am diametrically opposed to parties and balls; and yet when I broach the subject-they either laugh at me-imagining that I wish to perpetrate a joke; or look very serious, shake their heads and tell me not to encourage such silly notions.” [2]

Chopin’s determination not to sacrifice her personal freedom is a theme that comes up many times in her writing. The stability, or instability, of mental soundness is haunting. What Chopin dealt with was not easily escapable, but the vulnerability she exposes in

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Chopin with her 4 sons.

her writing, even at the sake of her reputation is something still currently admirable and needed. Even after marrying Oscar, Chopin upheld her freedom and developed a reputation for herself as not conforming entirely to societal expectations. Chopin is someone I come back to and read again and again because her struggle of not wanting to sacrifice her spirit is so relatable.

I remember being a voracious reader since elementary school. At that young age I was always reading Harry Potter or the Goosebumps or Fear Street books. However, I don’t remember actually writing much until after the unexpected loss of my father when I was in 7th grade. The concept of escapism was deeply embraced because well, middle school sucks for just about everyone, but dealing with depression at that tender age and missing someone you were close with so terribly makes for the grayest and thickest of fogs to wade through. But like Chopin, I wrote through the dark times. I wrote horrible, angsty poetry, sad song lyrics, ideas for grand novels I insisted to myself I’d write someday (newsflash to younger me—it’ll take you the 2.5 years you spend in graduate school to write that damned novel, but be proud of this because 1. The book doesn’t entirely suck 2. Your poetry gets so much better, and 3. You’ll be a published poet and that kind of rocks because your love affair with poetry will continue to breathe life into you when the gray clouds threaten to suffocate).

Another reason I often return to Chopin is because her struggle of obligation toward what was expected versus what she wanted to do for herself is a familiar battle for writers, too. Those questions of what do I change for the audience or what do I write for myself often linger and combat each other. As someone who writes horror and happens to be in possession of female body parts, comments such as “you’re a nice girl, why do you want to write this stuff for?” often arise…and that’s probably the nicest/cleanest version of that comment I’ve gotten. I love writing horror, especially with a feminist bent, because it allows me to explore my own discomforts, push boundaries, and write without apologies. I look to Chopin’s utter bravery for continuing to write after she Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 1.00.53 PMreceived such harsh reviews for The Awakening. Such negativity would have been enough to permanently discourage someone from trying to publish anything again, especially since that novel conveys such pure openness at the expense of risking reputation. But now the novel that was considered obscene and received scathing criticism is considered one of the most important works in literature, especially feminist literature.

Chopin wrote on. She persisted. Her search for freedom of the female spirit would not be silenced. Her fearless attitude, her ability to embrace the soft, perhaps more vulnerable sides of being human, of being a woman, with the tough, gritty, strong and often unseen sides will forever serve as inspiration for me and hopefully countless others. When I scrapped my original plan in undergrad and decided to take on creative writing, I was terrified to share my work with peers in such open settings, but I found I could take constructive criticism from others. I could handle rejections from publishers. After that, my fears faded into something completely manageable. I love feedback. I hunger for conversations on what can be improved and how to write better, and that’s why I love writing. This is the craft of constant challenges, of endless outlets and genres to try. The call to write is like a needy, hidden organ in your body — full of blood, waiting for you to decide how much you’ll squeeze out onto the page today.

Some things will hurt, whether they’re comments from others, a rejection you thought surely wouldn’t happen, learning someone you respected in the industry isn’t all that great…there’s a lot of things that happen in this field. But if we can learn anything from Chopin, I believe it is that the power to persevere lives inside all of us. Women are tough as hell. Like Chopin, we know, inherently, how to swallow the crap down and turn it into fire, to forge rage into determination, to use determination to embrace our talent and satisfy ourselves with our work before worrying about what others think. Chopin was ahead of her time. There was something mystical about her, and her calling to write is something I am deeply grateful for because her influence, her awakening, helped lead me to mine. She showed me how to confront my own truths, the ones hidden away in the shadows of the soul.

“But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” –The Awakening [3]

So here’s to souls not perishing in tumult, but rather learning to embrace the entangled chaos of a writer’s life. Here’s to the middle-school me who learned to write about more

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Photo by MaxPixel.  “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander…” The Awakening

than ghosts and sadness and silly boys. Here’s to women who dare to be both vulnerable and tough, who know how to live with both the sunny days and the storms within them. You are summer days and you are thunderclouds with lightning always poised, waiting to strike anyone who may try and steal your sun or your storms. Remember, the successes of others do not take away from your own — they never have and never will. Your daily courage and your own survival, these are your successes. You are awakened, and you will not be contained.

 

 

Works Cited:

  1. American Literature. “Kate Chopin.” https://americanliterature.com/author/kate-chopin/bio-books-stories.
  2. Deter, Floramaria. “Kate Chopin: In Search of Freedom.” ThoughtCo, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/kate-chopin-in-search-of-freedom-735149.
  3. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Norton, 1996.